This is a book that sat on my shelf for more than a year. Friends said it was “difficult to read”, “slow”, “I didn’t quite get it”. Now that I was about to see the movie, I decided to get the book out and read it. Am I glad I did! I loved the book. “Life of Pi” is a deep, thoughtful, allegorical book. On the one hand it is the story of Pi Patel’s journey across the Pacific with a Bengal Tiger on board and the novel tells the tale of his survival. But seeing the book as only that much, would be to miss what I think to be its true and deeper meaning. The main theme of the book in my opinion is faith. The book does not endorse any one religion but affirms faith as what will help us survive in this journey we call life. Pi Patel has two main interests as a child and youngster – the animals in his father’s zoo in Pondicherry, India and religion. Young as he is, he rightly discovers that God is One, and though he is born into a Hindu family he embraces Islam and Christianity.
I am a Hindu from the south of India so no doubt I got the Hindu symbols in the book and likely missed some of the symbolism of the other religions. In Hindu terminology, life is often referred to as “samsara sagara”, samsara is the cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth due to karma and vasanas; sagara is ocean – in short the ocean of life with all its suffering. Pi’s journey across the Pacific is symbolic of the journey of life with all its attendant grief and suffering interspersed with brief moments of pleasure. Much of our time on earth is spent surviving, often surviving trumps morality as Pi discovers. Especially through times of grief one feels alone as danger lurks all around us “I was alone and orphaned in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me and a storm raging about me” – such is life except for the brief periods of happiness. How to survive this? Pi finds a survival manual with a list of things that will help him survive. Along with other essentials on this list is “God”.
Faith and spirituality make us see the unity, the oneness of all beings rather than the variation. One day as Pi is cycling up a hillock, he experiences this unity “a paradoxical mix of pulsing energy and profound peace” in which all is one – the road, the sea, the trees, the air, the sun. Before they spoke “differently to me, now they spoke one language of unity…. every element lived in harmonious relation with its neighbour and with all kith and kin. I knelt a mortal; I rose an immortal”. Pg 68 True faith and spirituality does not divide us. However as in our world, the Christian priest, the Muslim imam and the Hindu pundit fight over which religion is best for Pi. “There are those who take it upon themselves to defend God as if the Ultimate Reality is something weak and helpless…..these people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended not on the outside… the main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the clearing of each heart” pg 78.
The premise of the book is that it is better to believe in something even if one believes in the absence of God. If you are not a believer, it is better to be an atheist than an agnostic. Pi says “It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw but agnostics….doubt is good for a while but to choose doubt as a philosophy of life is like choosing immobility as a mode of transportation” pg 31. This was my favourite sentence in the book.
The book abounds in symbols. Orange is the colour of Hinduism. Usha carries an orange cat, Orange Juice the orangutan keeps Pi company for a few days, many items Pi finds that help him survive are orange in colour, the bright orange tarpaulin, an orange whistle, the life buoy and of course the orange of Richard Parker, the Bengal Tiger to whom Pi attributes his survival. Though Pi is afraid of Richard Parker, he does not want him to die because then he will be alone. Loneliness is a worse foe than the tiger. Green is the colour of Islam as symbolised by the emerald island and the blue of the ocean represents Christianity.
Readers will debate about what Richard Parker represents. In the second story as told at the end of the book, Richard Parker is Pi. Does he represent Pi’s baser instincts? And if Pi is any man, does Richard Parker represent man’s lower self? – that part of each of us that is wild, aggressive, survival focussed. This lower self needs to be fed and satisfied but as Pi figures out, it needs to be tamed. The lower self needs to be shown who is the master. When your spiritual journey matures, the baser instincts walk away as Richard Parker does upon Pi’s landing in Mexico.
There is also the symbolism of Pi’s name, Pi “the number that runs on forever” pg 316. Each one of us is part of the infinite, eternal universal soul some call it Brahman, others call it Allah and still others call it Jesus.
The book is about faith not religion so much. However there is a cautionary note. Religion that seeks to control can consume us and become destructive as symbolised by the carnivorous emerald island.
When Pi lands in Mexico, the Japanese officials who interview him do not believe his story as most of us do not believe what the scriptures or spiritual seers tell us. “We believe what we see” says the Japanese official. “Scientists would not believe in this story” they say but Pi reminds them that scientists are known to have been wrong. They dismissed the theories of Darwin and Copernicus. Nor have they discovered all the laws of nature. “God is hard to believe, ask any believer” Our problem is that we apply reason in our attempt to understand God “reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter…..but be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater” pg 330. Like the Japanese officials most of us want to believe in what we already know ; something that won’t surprise us, something we are comfortable with. So Pi gives the officials another story, one that they can relate to “dry, yeastless factuality”.
Yaan Martel’s prose is excellent. The book is immensely funny (and I mean laugh-out-loud funny at times!) inspite of its serious topic. I loved the jacket of the book. If you are looking for a book that will make you think, analyze, discuss then this is a book you must read, but read it slowly and carefully so as not to miss the nuggets. This review states what I got out of the book. Not everyone who reads this book will see it the same way; each reader may have a different take on the book. I would like to end my review with the words of Piscine Molitor Patel
… if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts. The lower you are the higher your mind will want to soar. It was natural that bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering I should turn to God. pg 315
Geetha`s love of books began when she was a child. She later turned that love into formal education with a Masters in English Literature and then again into a career for a few years, teaching English at Ethiraj and Fergusson Colleges in India. Though her career took her into the computer industry, Geetha has continued to read both individually as well as part of a book club in Newmarket, Canada where she lives.